Humans, Nature, and the Illusion of Separateness
“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh
One of the biggest lies that people in the global north were sold and have largely internalized is that we are separate from the biosphere from which we evolved and on which we depend upon for our very survival. Even as we stand on the precipice of ecological collapse, human supremacy over nature has been the unchallenged narrative. As a result, those who have taken up the struggle to protect this fragile arrangement of existence are often otherized. Their “cause” is treated as just one of many. The “treehugger?” The “environmentalist?” The person who “cares about the earth?” How noble. How non-threatening. It becomes just another cause in a myriad of causes.
The message here is that we ought not think of this in terms of human survival. In existential terms. That would be too hyperbolic. Too woo-woo. The corporations that derive every bit of their wealth from the true “commonwealth” of all species on this planet want nothing less than for us to think we are either above it all or separate from it all. If more make the connection that we need to stop the decimation of the natural world it will ultimately put a dent in their profit margin. If we are honest, that is what the current economic and political order cares about the most.
To be fair, capitalism cannot do anything but accumulate more and more capital. And capital is virtually everything that exists, from the raw minerals and petrol deep in the earth’s crust, to the fish in the sea and trees in the boreal range, to governments and politicians, to our own personal information and preferences. It has created a global arrangement of power that must use obfuscation as well as violence, or its threat, as a way of keeping the engine running.
But if we see this as truly existential we begin to realize that things like plugging in our single person vehicles, or replacing plastic straws with bamboo ones, or recycling our plastic water bottles are mostly window dressing for an unfolding catastrophe. They are intended to obscure one of the biggest crimes in human history, the wholescale destruction of life on earth for the profit of the corporate class.
None of this is meant to encourage conspiratorial thinking. It is not to imply that there is a group of evil villains meeting in a secret boardroom plotting the destruction of the earth’s biosphere somewhere either. But it does involve a sort of conspiracy at work. Just a few years ago we learned that the tobacco industry hired physicians to lie about the harmful affects of smoking even though they knew very well that it caused potentially fatal conditions like heart disease, emphysema and lung cancer. Plastic companies have been greenwashing the massive production of their products by promoting programs like recycling, which barely put a dent in the growing problem of plastic pollution. And we learned relatively recently that the fossil fuel industry did something similar regarding the danger of endless burning of fossil fuels and its acceleration of climate change. Corporate entities are simply incapable of grappling with the destructive affects of their mode of operation if it interferes with the endless growth and increased profit paradigm.
The danger we now face could not be more dire. World renowned political dissident and author Noam Chomsky has warned that “the future of organized human life” is imperiled by climate change. A recent piece from 17 scientists in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science warned of “ghastly” consequences from ecological degradation if radical steps are not taken. And Australian scientists released a sobering report this year about diverse ecosystems in the region that are in a state of collapse, from the tropics to coral reefs to the desert and Antarctica.
Whether or not one believes these reports, there is ample evidence of massive ecological destruction throughout the global south which is a direct result of extractive and exploitative industries in the global north. Clear cutting forests, from Brazil to Indonesia, has exploded exponentially. Sub-standard mining practices have defiled waterways. Pollution from fossil fuel extraction continues to be a scourge, from noxious benzene plumes and effluent in the Niger Delta to open oil pits in the Ecuadorian Amazon to massive spills on coral reefs off Mauritius. Rubbish from the global north is routinely dumped in regions in the global south that are not regulated or policed. And the new “green” technology is threatening to destroy even more habitats with lithium mines and solar farms. This is what the corporate policy of “externalized costs” really looks like. It is also how the lie of separateness is made manifest. Corporations move from one sacrifice zone to the next, but on a finite world this Faustian bargain was doomed from the start.
We have been warned that there is a need for radical change. Unsurprisingly, the corporations that run the world’s affairs have incorporated much of this language into their mission statements and ethos. But we should understand that this is nothing more than another subterfuge. A way to maximize their profit from a dying world all while giving it a greenwashed face. They must maintain the current rate of extraction and growth in order to do this. But now they have been forced to change the language they use. To be sure, no real sacrifices will be asked from us in the global north who have largely benefitted from this untenable and unfair way of life. As George H.W. Bush famously declared: “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” And by this he meant the American model of endless accumulation of capital and consumption for a few at the expense of the many and the living earth.
Humanity is facing its nemesis. The thin layer of air and water that embraces the crust of this planet, and on which we are fully dependent, is imperiled like no other time in human history. And there is a clear cause for this. Corporations, with the help of the military and political sectors, are rapidly unraveling the fragile net that holds us. And they get away with it because most of us still think we are somehow separate from nature. Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote at the top of this essay might be taken as strictly spiritual in its implications by some. But I think it also has a very tangible application to where we are as a species. For too long we have allowed the narrative to be dictated by the myth of our separateness and dominance over the earth and all that lives here. And that narrative has led us to the brink of utter catastrophe. Dispelling this toxic illusion is imperative, therefore, for our very survival.
Kenn Orphan April 2021